Aboard a US Naval Troop Ship
In April 1958, with the pomp of the U.S. Army’s Engineer School’s graduation ceremony behind me, I, along with my buddy Harold, received orders to an engineer field maintenance platoon somewhere in Europe. The orders only indicated an APO (Army Post Office), so we had no idea where. The orders also didn’t tell us how we were to get there, directing us to a replacement depot at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
We arrived at the Repo Depot and were shown to our rooms, a large squad bay in a barracks dating back to the Second World War. It had two floors, each with a large open bay. Double bunks lined both sides with drab gray metal wall lockers to stow our duffel bags. The décor was a dull olive drab with tile floors shined mirror bright. Sergeants had special rooms at both ends, so they were not required to mix with us plebes.
A Specialist Four informed us our assignment was somewhere in France, but not where.
France? Gee whiz. How exciting. That sounded great. I’d heard how beautiful and romantic France was. Great wine. Beautiful women. Awesome food. We could hardly wait to learn when and how we were going.
It took two days of Kitchen Police, Policing the Area [picking up tiny bits of paper and cigarette butts], along with polishing floors, until we were told we weren’t going to McGuire Air Force Base but to the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Our orders directed us on an ocean voyage. How neat!
The olive drab bus probably served school kids a decade or so earlier. With duffel bags on our shoulders, we loaded up, filling all the seats with our big, heavy bags on our laps. We were all kinda surprised as there was only one bus.
There were no freeways or interstates between the fort and the city. I have no idea how long it took or even which bridge we crossed. I’d seen New York twice before, so the towering structures no longer impressed me. Harold came from Redding, a sort of small place in Northern California. That was his first time and he kept craning his neck to see everything.
Shore Patrol (Navy Police)
The main gate had a huge banner welcoming us to Brooklyn Navy Yard and a sailor with an armband marked “SP” for Shore Patrol, came aboard the bus to ensure no Commie spies were trying to get in. We drove through endless warehouses until we reached the docks. I’d been on fishing boats and the ferry between Long Beach and Catalina Island, so the troop ship impressed me as being huge.
Two smoke stacks rose above a dull gray superstructure. It had masts fore and aft. I shook my head. Why masts on a modern steamship? One of the stacks had huge letters announcing its name. I must admit that, after all these years, I can’t remember whether it was the General Patch or the General Rose. In any case, the hull had long red rust streaks cascading down the sides pierced with long lines of small circular holes. It didn’t exactly present an inviting façade. I later found a plaque indicating it had been launched some time in 1943 and guessed it’d been across the Atlantic more than one or two hundred times.
The bus turned down a very long pier and pulled up next to the boat. Uh, excuse me - I was quickly corrected that “she” was a ship. A sailor walked over and waited while we grabbed our gear and got off the bus. Once lined up, he led us to a long ramp with handrails. But, how much good would they do us as we needed one hand to balance the heavy duffel over our shoulders?
The tide was out, so the gangplank wasn’t steep. A sailor in clothing that certainly wasn’t military led us down some steep ladders or stairs or whatever they called those things. That wasn’t all that easy carrying duffel bags.
The senior man of our small, motley group was a specialist fifth class (equal to a sergeant but without the authority of a noncom). He was in charge simply due to his seniority. He had about as much gumption as a slug. He’d never led anything in his life. We were shown to an area in a huge bay. An endless array of poles with cots racked four high confronted us. The canvas cots were folded and it was up to us to decide who got which. Being innately lazy, I took the bottom bunk, as I had no desire to try to climb into the top.
I think the first thing that hit me below decks was the smell. The mass of human bodies had not yet entered, so the aromas came from stale seawater and diesel fuel. Add that to the confined space, and there was little doubt that no few passengers would spend time in the head, as they called the latrines, or hanging over the rail.
By the way - where were all the bodies that would normally fill the space?
And, if course, as we were about as important as bugs, nobody was going to tell us.
Once we’d secured our duffel bags to the stanchions, we were allowed to go up on deck. I do remember there were forty-seven of us. As the bus was designed to hold forty-nine passengers and two seats were vacant, it wasn’t hard to figure out. Anyhow, that gave us freedom of the deck so we wandered around. On the side away from the dock, we could look out over a whole bunch of ships. There were a few sleek destroyers and some other vessels that appeared to be for shipping things (not too hard to guess as one had a bunch of CONEX containers being lowered into a hold. We were all very surprised to see tug boats with US ARMY painted on their smokestacks and crews wearing army fatigues. One skipper wore a floppy officer’s service hat with the distinctive warrant officer insignia. The other tugboat captain wore an equally floppy cap with bright yellow master sergeant stripes. Heck - none of the others had any idea the army had boats and crews. Harold and I did from our engineer mechanic’s school.
The ship had apparently been waiting for our pitiful number to board as the steam whistle high above us blew a couple of blasts that echoed back from across the oily water of the harbor. The tugboats replied and great swirls of foam appeared behind them as they pulled the ship away from the dock.
The tugs towed the ship out into the river and we began our voyage. We passed the Statue of Liberty and I thought how neat it was to see something given us by the people of the country I was going to spend the next two and a half years serving in.
Fair weather blessed us as we sailed down the east coast. At last, a crewman informed us we were on our way to Savannah, Georgia where we’d load troops from the 3rd Infantry Division on their way to Germany.
I had no idea which side of the boat was Port and which was Starboard. I did know what the bow and stern were. If the left side was Port, why should it be called that when we sailed south and the coastal ports were on our right side? Yes, I looked it up. Starboard comes from an old word for the side the boat was steered on and, as most were right-handed, they steered from the right side of the boat.
The waves didn’t rock the boat too much. But the side-to-side motion was a lot more unnerving than meeting them head on. We, of course, had plenty to do. The military cannot let soldiers idle, so there was more than a few things to keep us busy. First was cleaning and mopping our sleeping areas, along with the head. As there were just a few of us, we ate in a dining area on the deck-level looking out to sea. That meant we took turns doing Kitchen Police; washing pots and pans, peeling spuds, serving the others and all the things needed to keep the kitchen area clean to military standards. Thank goodness there wasn’t anyone else but us and we ate where the sailors did.
Basic training and the advanced school accustomed me to coffee. There was milk and soft drinks provided, but I first broke with my Mormon upbringing against drinking things with caffeine soon after arriving at Fort Ord for basic training. Army coffee had been powerful, but that on the ship was about as high octane as any I’d had. The secret of military coffee making is simple - add eggshells to the coffee grounds in the massive coffee urns. The food was far from five star However, it was plentiful and nourishing.
The voyage didn’t last that long. As the sun rose the next morning, the ship turned shoreward and we watched a small speedboat pull up next to the ship. We were told it was the harbor pilot and he quickly climbed the ladder thrown over the side. We then slowly sailed up a river that narrowed as we moved inland. The skyline of Savannah couldn’t compare to The Big Apple.
Civilian tugboats came alongside to nudge the ship against the docks. There were two other ships upriver from us and cranes busily lifted huge, corrugated steel CONEX containers on board. We watched transfixed as they began to lift tanks, armored personnel carriers, Jeeps and trucks from flat rail cars into the holds of the ships. As each item was unloaded, their crews grabbed up their duffel bags and marched to one of the two gangplanks to our ship.
We also watched as the two masts of our ship turned into cranes to load endless boxes and crates into holds fore and aft. They contained food and the rest of the stuff to take care of the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of soldiers boarding.
It immediately became apparent the few of us who were not members of the 3rd Infantry Division were in for a long, difficult voyage. A three-striper sergeant (the next to lowest noncom rank) led his squad into our bay and immediately decided he wanted our area near the head (bathroom). We had to move our things to an area far from anything convenient. Our moves continued with the arrival of other groups until we ended up in the least inviting space in the bay.
Loading proceeded quickly and we spent only one night tied to the dock. Division cooks quickly took over the various dining facilities and we instantly found ourselves on KP - again at the direction of a staff sergeant. Our bay held one infantry company so we were under the thumb of a crusty first sergeant who did not look kindly upon non-infantry types. His brown Ike Jacket was loaded with rows upon rows of ribbons showing he’d served in War Deuce, as well as Korea.
(As the name refers, this jacket was designed by General Eisenhower during WWI and became standard when I enlisted. Yes, we wore the same brown uniforms with brown boots.)
I was fortunate to be one of four of us topside when it came time to sail late the next day.
Our time topside and at the rails became drastically curtailed. As a kid, I had seen lots of movies and newsreels that showed how rough and difficult crossing the Atlantic could be. Fortunately, it was April and the weather treated us kindly. We encountered no storms. (At least not from Mother Nature.)
I have learned great respect for those who serve in the combat branches of the military. However, as a brand new, green recruit with two scrolls showing I was a fully qualified repairman of very complicated and large building machine, that was far from my thoughts. The guys surrounding me were a bunch of “ground-pounders” with no skills besides marching and digging holes in the ground. It was made worse by the total disdain exhibited by the grunts against us few clerks and grease monkeys.
However, the voyage was far from boring - at least for me. I learned military customs and law in boyhood. It came when I was a Boy Scout. I understood the Uniformed Code of Military Justice and that it was a big NO-NO to talk back to a soldier of senior rank. However, I also had (have?) a bit of a temper. It flairs quickly and subsides just as fast.
I had a day off from what seemed to be constant KP and/or latrine duty. I made the mistake of not leaping out of bed when Revile sounded. The endearing Buck Sergeant came along and kicked me through the bottom of my cot, screaming at me to hit the deck.
I boiled. I slowly rose and looked him straight in the eye and said, “You are an ignorant, illegitimate offspring of a female canine.” I then turned to gather my clothing.
“What did you call me?” he screamed. When I didn’t repeat it, he turned to one of his grunts and asked what I’d said. “He called you a stupid bastard son of a bitch, Sarge,” he said.
My fellow transients (as we were called) covered their smiles, but some of the sergeant’s fellow grunts who didn’t hold him in very high esteem, snickered loudly, some even laughing.
The sergeant turned beet red, clenched his fists and ordered me to follow him, not letting me put on anything over my skivvies but letting me slip into my combat boots. He marched me to his platoon sergeant, told him what he’d been told I’d said and demanded I be punished for it.
In any other situation, the most it would have earned me was nonjudicial punishment levied by the company commander. It would probably have resulted in confinement to quarters and maybe a fine. However, as we were aboard ship and I wasn’t assigned to any element of the division, the legal types determined I had to appear before a Summary Courts Martial.
The sergeant stood to one side as a major read the charges and asked if I was guilty or not. One of the division’s lieutenants had been appointed as my defense and advised me to keep my mouth shut and let him talk. He plead guilty with mitigating circumstances, indicating the sergeant had kicked me out of sleep. I was asked to repeat the words and told him I couldn’t remember them. He asked the sergeant and he couldn’t repeat them either. Someone had made a statement and that was read into the record.
The end result was losing my pretty yellow private first class stripe, having two-thirds of my pay forfeited for three months and an additional three months restriction to base. All for telling off an ignorant, acting three-stripe sergeant.
From that time forward, the sergeant’s superior kept a close eye on me. I got every crappy job and detail possible. I learned the fine art of chipping thick layers of paint from metal, sanding it clean, then repainting it with the same ugly dull color. I discovered why old movies showed sailors on their knees rubbing the decks with stones - it’s to make the deck less slippery when it gets wet.
The good thing about working the decks was being outside the ship’s holds and the growing aroma of human bodies crowded together.
Entering the English Channel was a milestone for all - especially me as it meant my torture was nearing an end. We could barely see the famous White Cliffs of Dover off to the west.
Crossing the Atlantic hadn’t been all that rough. But, the Channel was choppy and it rained from the moment we entered until we sailed into the North Sea to turn towards Bremerhaven, Germany. I’d never seen a major harbor before and couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of that massive German seaport. New York’s harbor was tiny in comparison. Ships beyond count sailed in and out. Endless piers with cranes busily loaded and unloaded ships. I quickly appreciated the skill it took to guide an ocean-going vessel through the traffic to a relatively small pier.
As the division troops had to wait for their equipment to be offloaded, we transients were first off the ship. They bussed us to another replacement depot where we were blessed by a night of sleeping on a double-tiered bunk in an environment that didn’t constantly move. The mess hall food was military-standard, but didn’t smell of diesel fuel and seawater.
We lined up early the next morning after breakfast and Harold and I first learned our destination - first stop, Saintes, then to some place further south called Landes de Bussac. There was even a map on the wall to show it was near a big city called Bordeaux.
We were led to a platform next to a train with US ARMY TRANSPORTATION CORPS boldly splattered on the cars!
So, the army not only had a navy, but trains too?
Welcome to Europe! Welcome to Germany! We sat, glued to the windows, watching the new world pass by. With only a bit over a decade since the end of the war, the rebuilding amazed us. Houses and buildings were laden with flower boxes bursting with colorful blooms. Clean streets dominated the vista and we saw no trash lying around. It was everything I’d expected.
Then, the train stopped and our car was disconnected and switched to a French locomotive. We had to wait while French policemen came through the cars followed by US Military Police. Why on earth did they have to inspect us? Who did they expect to be on a US military train? (I also noticed the Gendarmes didn’t seem to know the regular use of bathing facilities.)
The change in the countryside shocked me. The houses and buildings were a gloomy, sooty gray and I saw signs of destruction left over from the war. The French wore drab clothes. There wasn’t a single Bridget Bardot or her equal anywhere in sight. In fact, I quickly learned that most of the women we encountered had not yet become accustomed to the regular use of a razor. I also rapidly became to know why perfume and cologne had been invented.
Welcome to the land of boors, snobs and drab colors. What an end to my first ocean voyage.